The Third Gender in Twentieth-Century America

Article excerpt

George Chauncey's brilliant and often persuasive study of male homosexual relations in early twentieth-century New York was published two years ago on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Stonewall riot that inaugurated the recent gay liberation movement. The world that he describes was the product of a major shift in western sexual behavior that had begun two hundred years before, around 1700. And his book is in dialogue with the scholars who over the past twenty-five years have tried to analyze that shift. The nature of the problem to be discussed can be indicated by asking whether homosexuality and heterosexuality are biological categories that divide the world into a majority and a minority that can be found in all times and places. To such a question most western people today would reply yes. And while they would probably wonder why a minority should be homosexual, they would simply accept without question that most people are heterosexual. Since the 1970s, however, the work of some historians and sociologists has radically challenged these presumptions. Mary McIntosh in a classic article in 1968 began the discussion by proposing that homosexuality in modern society was a deviant role into which some men were socialized beginning around 1700. Nine years later in 1977 Jeffrey Weeks and myself, under McIntosh's influence but independently of each other, rephrased McIntosh's proposal. Weeks maintained that the modern homosexual role emerged in the late nineteenth century when the concepts of homosexuality and heterosexuality were invented.(1)

My tactic was to compare what I thought to be the traditional western pattern of homosexual behavior with the two patterns that could be found elsewhere. In Europe since the twelfth century adult effeminate men exclusively attracted to each other had met in urban subcultures that protected them from the hostility of the majority. Elsewhere in the world adult men had licit sexual relations with both males and females, provided that they remained dominant by having relations either with adolescent males or with a minority of adult males who had been transformed into women. One of these two patterns could be seen in each of the world's major cultural areas. Domination was achieved by differences in age in east Asia, Melanesia, the Islamic world, and the ancient Mediterranean. A minority of males were socialized into a third gender role throughout southern Asia from the Philippines to Madagascar and among some tribal peoples in Africa and the Americas. When I proposed this tripartite development very little was known about European homosexual behavior before 1700. John Boswell and Alan Bray changed that. Their books seemed to show (though neither put it this way) that the traditional European pattern was one in which most men had relations with both women and adolescent boys. This is now demonstrated with statistical certainty for Renaissance Florence by Michael Rocke in his brilliant dissertation and his new book. I therefore proposed in a series of articles (198594) that European society had always operated within the terms of the two worldwide systems, and that European homosexual relations had moved around 1700 from a system in which domination was achieved by differences in age to one in which a minority were socialized into a lifelong role as a third gender, producing thereby what the late nineteenth century categorized as homosexuality and heterosexuality. My evidence was drawn from England, but Theo van der Meer and Dirk Jaap Noordam have shown that something very similar occurred in the Netherlands, and the late Michel Rey and the new collection edited by Jeffrey Merrick and Bryant Ragan make the same case for France.(2)

But where in all this is Michel Foucault? In 1976 in a single paragraph of the introductory volume of his history of sexuality, Foucault made a proposal about the late nineteenth century that was similar to Weeks', and it is Foucault rather than Weeks whom many cite when they say that homosexuality has existed only for a hundred years. …